How can I cope with the change of seasons? What can I do to support my mental health?
I’ve asked myself these questions hundreds of times over the years, but at different times than people around me. I have always suffered at the beginning of summer and enjoyed Autumn, and since a few years ago, I’ve welcomed the shortening of days and colder weather more than I ever expected.
I noticed though, that the people around me were reacting to the seasons a bit differently and until fairly recently, I had never heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). And yet, I didn’t feel represented. I felt like my body clock was reacting unseasonally and I had to do something about it. So, rather than forcing myself to fit into a box that was clearly too tight for me, I read around to find my own answers on why June is always the hardest and October the easiest, and since coming to Scotland, April became my favourite month.
A bit of science
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on finding a diagnostic term to describe a change in mood and habits as a reaction to seasonal changes. The term “Season Affective Disorder” was then coined to explain a reaction to winter in the Northern Hemisphere. At a closer look, SAD is a subcategory of depression with a seasonal twist to it, offering a list of symptoms as if there’s no consequentiality to it.
A series of scientific studies (“Seasonality in human cognitive brain responses” or “Seasonal changes in immune function“) give us a better understanding of our body’s reaction to external factors, re-establishing a connection between us and the world around us.
These studies show that our brain activity and performance are seasonal, as do our metabolism and immune system. It is no surprise that the change of season impacts our biological processes, affecting how we feel and think about ourselves, others and the world around us.
Seasonal factors impacting our mental health
Over the centuries, we learnt how to keep warm in cold weather and cool during warmer months, how to light indoor spaces when the days get shorter and darker, and how to access unseasonal produce throughout the year to suit our palates. Needless to say, we don’t give our bodies enough time and space to adapt to the new season, especially when unaided by this skilful adaptation of our environments. At the end of the day, brighter rooms in the evening haven’t made up yet for the Vitamin D deficiency we all experience during the winter months here in Northern Europe!
Weather and daylight
Some of the seasonal changes can involve the weather and daylight. Think about how the light changes with the changing of seasons, from morning to afternoon, from summer to winter, from a sunny day to a rainy and cloudy one. The level of dryness, humidity and wetness changes seasonally, and so is our preferences of what we enjoy, tolerate or struggle with.
Although I always appreciated rainy days, I soon realised that the difference in Vitamin D exposure in Scotland throughout the year, but especially over the winter months with reduced daylight, made it difficult to absorb enough to keep me going. This meant draining my reserves by summertime, which explained why June was such a problematic and exhausting month for me (no solved with supplements, adjusted working hours, increased outdoor time and a light therapy lamp!).
Seasonal changes involve a different use of the space in terms of time spent and use, and so does our relationship with that particular space. For example, think about how you use your local green area and how you enjoy your time there throughout the year. I am sure it differs according to the season. And what about other urban environments or the time you spend indoors or outdoors?
Wildlife and vegetation
Wildlife and vegetation also adapt and transform throughout the year, offering us a renewed and cyclical sense of awe and wonder. Think about how you feel when you witness Autumn in woodlands, spring in botanic gardens or winter in the mountains, compared to any other season. Can you feel a shift in the way you feel?
Other non-seasonal factors impacting our mental health
If the changing of seasons feel particularly heavy to the point of impacting your mental health, there may be other factors, unrelated to the natural environment, which may be exacerbated by some of the seasonal changes highlighted.
First of all, there is a personal history connected to each season. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, the beginning of winter coincides with the approaching of the festive season (Christmas), a time that would feel joyous for some, but particularly challenging for others. Together with a shortening of the days, harsher weather conditions, more time spent indoors and a decrease of energy levels, it can all contribute to a sense of heaviness around this time of the year.
There is a cultural element in the way we respond to each season, starting from the way seasons are interpreted and integrated into people’s lives. In “The Nature and Culture of the Seasons”, Rob Giblet shares “The seasons play an important role in organizing a sense of time, of the progression of the year, of the cycle of the year, and the years. Their role has also changed over time, especially from Paleolithic hunter-gather societies to Neolithic agricultural ones, and then to modern industrialised ones.”
Certain seasons or months may also be associated with personal difficulties or distressing memories. At times, some seasonal rituals and expectations are culture-driven which may heighten a sense of isolation and loneliness.
Furthermore and equally important, our mental health can be impacted by systemic oppression. Although this may not necessarily be a seasonal recurrence, rather an everyday struggle for many, hate, microaggression, and marginalisation do impact our mental health.
To conclude, there may be ongoing biological factors that may affect our overall wellbeing (from low levels of specific nutrients and vitamins to more severe physical health issues) that may be exacerbated by the changes of seasons (for example, think about the impact of colder weather on someone who has arthritis).
What does it look like for your mental health?
All of these seasonal and non-seasonal factors can impact our mental health, at times making it hard to cope with the things that happen to us. Specifically, seasonal factors can have an impact on our health in a myriad of ways. A change of weather or sunlight exposure can impact our organism by, for example, affecting our hormones and ability to absorb vitamin D, which, in turn, impacts our serotonin and dopamine levels which fluctuation is linked to our moods. We may also experience tiredness and pressure differently, or relate to certain spaces in certain seasons with heaviness and sadness if some memories get associated.
How to survive the change of seasons: evergreen tips
No matter the seasons, there are some evergreen tips that can help us survive (or better, cope with ease) the change of seasons.
First, search for daylight and embrace it. For those living in a northern country, as I do, winter can be particularly tough due to shorter days and frequent bad weather. One piece of advice is to celebrate those sunny days and make the most out of them.
Spending time outside and connecting to nature are two of my favourite activities. They make me feel intimately interconnected and in synchrony with the other-than-human world, giving me a sense of belonging and a deeper understanding of the cycles of nature.
Eat seasonally (and locally, if possible!). I am telling this more to myself than anything. When I moved to Scotland from Italy, for many years I craved the typical Mediterranean produce while complaining that the local and seasonal one was not what I needed. When I made the switch it all made sense: not only was I feeling more satisfied and fuller, but I got to learn about my territory better and appreciate it more, which in turn made me want to be more active in protecting it. Don’t get me wrong, I still eat and crave out-of-season Mediterranean produce every now and again! I am just a more careful and mindful consumer these days.
One of the things that I have noticed is that some seasons call more for a sedentary lifestyle than others. One way to work through that is to add movement in ways that feel possible for the season you are in. For example, there may be seasons when you feel energised and want to move your body in ways that make you feel strong and get your heart beating, while 6 months later you may crave for a more gentle type of movements, like stretching or slow and short walks.
Working with the seasons
Leaning into nature’s wisdom has been an essential part of people’s life since the beginning of time.
Although it still lives among us thanks to the many professions that work with and for the land, the seas and wildlife, these teachings may not necessarily be of knowledge, especially since the process of industrialisation brought us further and further away from nature. The following will be therefore an overview of what we can learn from each season (as they are understood by western societies in the northern hemisphere).
Spring is a time for renewal, rebirth and its energy is outwardly-driven. It is in this season that we explore how to reconnect to a pace that feels comfortable for us aware of this new energy and vitality we see in the nature around us.
Summer is plentiful and playful, a season for making connections, being active and celebrating.
Autumn is a time to welcome changes and tidy up all the projects and activities that started in spring and expanded in summer. This season offers opportunities to create support networks to help through the winter months. There is a shift here from spring and summer, with our energies starting to be directed inwards rather than outwards.
Last but not least, winter offers an opportunity to slow down, explore our inner world and let go of all the extras that are not serving us at the moment.
Seasons do have an impact on us and if we tune into each one of them, we can learn how to make the best out of our time and energies. It is important here to remember that the seasons alone are only partially a reason for our struggles with our mental health. Systemic oppression and history of struggles with our mental health, our relationship with space and our cultures can all contribute to that sense of heaviness that may show seasonal patterns.
The double-edged sword of diagnostic labels, like “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)” (also referred to as or seasonal depression) risks shadowing important information for the understanding of someone’s wellbeing. In this instance, it limits the understanding of someone’s struggles with their mental health to a change of weather, where there may be something more to it.
If you are struggling with your mental health and would like to talk to someone but don’t know where to start, I wrote a blog post to help you find out how: I need help with my mental health: what do I do?
Or you can connect with me.